The origins of the Oxford Internet Institute

Oxford Internet Institute

Considering the Internet's central role in the lives of many people today, the idea of a research institute where its effects and consequences are measured and analysed seems logical and necessary in 2010. However, men such as Derek Wyatt, Colin Lucas and Andrew Graham expressed this opinion as early as the late 1990s. It was their foresight and ambition, together with a good slice of luck and coincidence that the Oxford Internet Institute emerged when and where it did, becoming established in 2001.

The history of the Oxford Internet Institute can be traced to 1998: January 1st 1998 to be exact. On this day two events coincided that would pave the way for the founding of an internet institute. First of all, Andrew Graham assumed the office as Acting Master of Balliol College, having previously been a tutorial fellow in Economics at Balliol. Also on this day the lease of 1 St Giles, a building at the heart of Oxford, returned to the college. Previously 1 St Giles, a grade II listed building dating from the early 1820s, had been occupied by Morrell, Peel & Gamlen, a firm of solicitors and specialists in information technology and intellectual property. The firm were due to reside in the building until 2036. However, such plans were thwarted when Morrell, Peel & Gamlen were taken over in late 1997. Andrew Graham, in his first week of office as Acting Master, now had to find an innovative use to put this recently vacant building to.

In the following six months, Andrew canvassed the opinion of many individuals and visited many potentially interested parties. This was all to no avail however, and by June 2000 Andrew was still searching for a use for 1 St Giles. Then in the middle of June that year Colin Lucas, the then Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, invited Andrew to a meeting of College dons at St John's College at which Derek Wyatt, a junior executive for Sky television, was speaking. At Sky, Derek's area of expertise was the internet. Despite the network having little faith in the internet 'catching on', Derek was a passionate advocate who felt the need to organise an independent World Internet Forum, that could give ordinary citizens advice. Fuelled with such belief, Wyatt, a former student of St Catherine's College, wrote to Colin Lucas explaining how Oxford was slipping behind the likes of MIT, Cambridge and Imperial by its lack of an internet institute, a place of research where the effects of the internet were studied, measured and analysed. Lucas was obviously moved by this argument, as he soon invited Wyatt to lunch and then to speak to an audience of academics on the 14th June 2000, a date when the first seeds of the OII can be said to have been sown.

Derek Wyatt

Wyatt's talk was thought-provoking and provocative and as it drew to a close, Lucas took Andrew Graham and the Master of St Catherine's College, Sir Peter Williams, to one side, keen to find out their reaction. Would either be interested in acting on some of the many ideas that this junior executive for Sky raised? Andrew Graham was more than keen. Wyatt's talk had not only got him thinking; it had got his adrenaline pumping. He had been persuaded that the founding on an internet institute was an essential development for the study of Social Science in Oxford and such was his enthusiasm and sense of urgency, that he and Peter Williams wrote their report in just two days. The report outlined a plan for an Internet Policy Institute linked with a forum for the World Wide Web. The Vice-Chancellor was impressed and showed interest in Graham and Wyatt's plan. Buoyed with such a favourable response, the two men journeyed to the Cabinet Office and received similar complimentary feedback. It was a "great idea", a "fantastic project", they were told. They were asked to write a 70 page document outlining a five-year plan (and submitted it to David Milliband), but were then told that no money existed for such a venture. By early August 2000, things looked bleak: the future of the Oxford Internet Institute looked in jeopardy before it had even started.

Richard Susskind

However, this is where another Balliol man comes into the story of the founding of the Oxford Internet Institute. Richard Susskind, now the IT Advisor to the Lord Chief Justice of England and a holder of an OBE, studied at Balliol College for his doctorate in Law and Computers. One of the privileges enjoyed by former students of Balliol was a ticket to the annual Snell Dinner. In the late 1990s, Richard invited Dame Stephanie Shirley as his guest as a gesture to all the help she had given him. Dame Stephanie had made her name in the computer software industry, starting her company Xansa in 1962, and had a passion for the wider subject of developing technologies. Such was their mutual interest, Richard and Dame Stephanie had discussed for some time the lack of serious discussion about the social, ethical and moral implications of emerging technologies. Richard had shared similar conversations with Andrew Graham, and Dame Stephanie's enthusiasm did not go unnoticed.

At this point in the story, another former student of Balliol joins the story. As well as Richard Susskind, Dame Stephanie had also long been friends with Michael Warburg. Warburg was very keen on the idea of an internet institute at Oxford, and proved vital in winning Dame Stephanie's confidence and commitment to the project. Dame Stephanie was initially reluctant to be involved with the founding of the Oxford Internet Institute; the organisational structure and cumbersome bureaucracy of the University were more than enough to put her off. However, with the persuasive support of Warburg and the realisation that such a venture as an internet institute would keep her connected to the industry in which she excelled, Dame Stephanie warmed to the idea of playing a key role in the creation of an internet institute at Oxford. She warmed so much to the idea that she had soon committed £100,000 to a feasibility study to see whether the building at 1 St Giles would be a suitable office. The building, of course, passed with flying colours, and on May 4th 2001, Balliol College issued a press release headed "e-Research, a First for Oxford". The Oxford Internet Institute had been born, helped substantially by the £10 million from the Shirley Foundation and a further £5 million from the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE).

Dr Andrew Graham and Dame Stephanie Shirley

So the Oxford Internet Institute, or OII as it is better known, was the result of a varied mixture of enthusiasm, vision, timing and stamina. The need for an institute for studying the effects of the internet was widely acknowledged. Yet it was Derek Wyatt who came up with the initial idea. It was then the stamina and commitment to the cause shown by the likes of Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas that helped make Wyatt's ideas reality. Without the unwavering belief and enthusiasm of Richard Susskind and Michael Warburg, the project would never have received the financial backing is so desperately required. Their persistence and optimism helped convince Dame Stephanie of the worth of such a new University department. Ten years on, it is fair to say that their beliefs were well founded.